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  • The Persistence of Realism
  • Ulka Anjaria (bio)
A review of Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism. New York: Verso, 2013.

Against the myriad negative definitions of realism advanced by scholars—realism as not naturalism, romance, modernism—Fredric Jameson suggests a dialectical model in which realism emerges by means of its opposites: at one end, from récit, “the narrative situation itself and the telling of a tale as such” (10) and, at the other, from “the realm of affect,” in which the present overshadows other temporalities “with impulses of scenic elaboration, description and above all affective investment” (11). These antagonistic forces—narrative and affect—are constantly at play in the continuous production of realism, not reconciling in individual texts but appearing as contradictory pressures productive of meaning. This provocative approach proceeds beyond the analysis of individual texts to grasp realism as a whole, a level of theorization often absent from readings specific to one place or historical period.

In Part I, Jameson elaborates the nature of these opposing forces in more detail. Récit, he reminds us in Chapter 1, is not only a naïve reliance on a Barthesian preterite, but any acceptance of underlying narrative motivations such as destiny or fate, “the mark of irrevocable time, of the event that has happened once and for all” (21). Yet even when realism appears indebted to this narrative logic, time past begins to shift to time present in the course of its telling. As this shift occurs “from tale to daily life” (27), we see realism distinguish itself from its narrative predecessors; however, the pressure to fall back into the preterite—to make destiny operative in the narrative sense—continues to haunt the mode, and is thus constitutive of realism itself.

Chapter 2 initiates a discussion of the other side of realism—its perceived dissolution into modernism, or the “perpetual present,” which Jameson sees more productively for its affective rather than solely temporal dimension. This is affect as opposed to emotion; while the latter can be named, affect “somehow eludes language” (29). The tension between “the system of named emotions” and “the emergence of nameless bodily states” (32) is visible in Balzac and Flaubert; thus Jameson offers a refreshing new perspective on the Lukácsian distinction between realism and naturalism by rewriting it as between an allegorical and an affective impulse. (Although Jameson does not engage extensively with Lukács, the Hungarian philosopher seems to be his primary interlocutor throughout the book.) Jameson’s focus on intensity rather than essence is also useful for thinking about music and the plastic arts.

The discussion of affect leads to a compelling rereading of Zola outside the general disdain of his writing in studies of realism following Lukács. When read in light of the antinomies of realism, Zola’s “sensory overload” is not a rejection of realism but a consideration of “the temporality of destiny when it is drawn into the force field of affect and distorted out of recognition by the latter” (46). Zola’s description, unlike Balzac’s, does not stand outside of time but is subject to it, compiling an aesthetic critique of the affective nature of capitalism. This makes him closer to Tolstoy than Lukács is willing to allow—Tolstoy whose “anti-political” novels revolve around a variety of moods, a “ceaseless variability from elation to hostility, from sympathy to generosity and then to suspicion, and finally to disappointment and indifference” (85). For Jameson, these moods are not contingent elements of War and Peace’s narrative but constitute its very realism, particularly as they surface in tension with the novel’s inordinate number of characters who, despite Tolstoy’s realist promise, do not function as a unity but as a heterogeneity, “held together by a body and a name” (89). It is as if Tolstoy found himself constantly distracted, eager to move from one character to another—and this movement ends up forming a new aesthetic that “effaces the very category of protagonicity as such” (90).

The depletion of protagonicity becomes central to the realism of Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós, whose protagonists constitute the background of his novels, and “whose foreground is increasingly occupied...

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